Writing Chinese made easy?


Word group from Chineasy

There has been a lot of media buzz lately about Chineasy, a book and Chinese character learning method by ShaoLan Hsueh.  Her method was first publicized in a TED talk she gave in 2013 and recently published in Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese. As someone who has struggled for years to learn Chinese characters, I was intrigued.  It turns out that her method is not quite as revolutionary as she claims.  It boils down to associating an image with the character which both represents the meaning of the character and illustrates it graphically, so for 火 (huo, meaning fire) she shows the character engulfed in fire, or for 山 (shan, meaning mountain), a picture of a mountain superimposed on the character. In most cases, she uses the historical origin of the character for her mnemonic.  She then shows how characters combine to make new words, as in volcano, “fire mountain”  (火山). She is by no means the first to advocate using such a method.  Many learners of Chinese are familiar with Rick Harbaugh’s Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary, either the book or the web site, which presents a series of zipu or “character genealogies” which show graphically the close interconnections between over 4000 characters according to the  2000 year-old Shuowen Jiezi by Xu Shen and subsequent research by traditional etymologists. Another resource that explores graphically the origins of characters and associates them with images or little stories is the very well done Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters by Alison and Laurence Mathews.

What distinguishes Chineasy is above all the very nice color illustrations by Noma Bar.  Characters are grouped together based on the principal character used (such as a variety of combinations using the fire character).  The characters, however, are chosen not based on their use frequency, but based on whether they combine with other characters for which Noma Bar has found an appropriate illustration.  This makes for entertaining browsing through the book, but maybe not for practical vocabulary learning. Another caveat is that the characters used are the traditional character set, used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but not in mainland China, which uses the simplified character set. This in fact makes it much easier to find appropriate illustrations, as the traditional characters reflect more accurately the origins of the characters.

Chineasy is not the first method to advocate learning characters first, before learning how to speak.  This was most notably championed by James Heisig in his series of books on Japanese and Chinese, starting with Remembering the Kanji.   This is not an approach widely used today.  In fact the all-oral approach of the popular ChinesePod podcasts assumes learners will probably not be interested in learning characters, or will do so later, after learning to speak.  At any rate, I would agree with the comments by Victor Mair on the LanguageLog blog, that the statement by ShaoLan Hsueh in her TED talk that learning to write Chinese is much easier than learning to speak to be very different from my experience and, I would venture to say, from that of the majority of Chinese learners.  However, given the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, I welcome any new thinking about approaches to keeping those pesky characters to stick in my brain. And the illustrations by Noma Bar are indeed very nice.

Code-switching Arabic in song

Yasmine Hamdan

Yasmine Hamdan

Interesting review today on NPR of the latest album from Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, Ya Nass. She is well-known in the Middle East, going back to her days in Soapkills, the duo she founded with Zeid Hamdan. Hamdan now lives in Paris and is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. However, she sings exclusively in Arabic. This is a decision that is culturally understandable, but which tends to limit her popularity. According to the BBC, Hamdan was offered a lucrative contract by music executives, if she were willing to sing in English, but she refused. She’s forgoing catering to the larger English-speaking public, at least in part, because her songs are culturally and linguistically tied to the Middle East. As she has traveled and lived in a variety of Middle-Eastern countries, Hamden speaks a variety of dialects of Arabic, which, according to Wikipedia, has enabled her “to playfully use various dialects of Arabic in her lyrics, which alternate between Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Palestinian, Egyptian and Bedouin, as well as some of the code-switching which is so typical of Middle-Eastern humour”. Clearly, English or French would have a whole different dynamic in her songs, losing much in the translation.

Code-switching among Arabic speakers is common, but that occurs principally between speakers’ own dialect of Arabic and Standard Arabic. Typically, Standard Arabic is used in formal, religious, and literary contexts, while dialectal versions are used in everyday situations. Code-switching can be used for paralanguage purposes, i.e. to convey irony, disdain, or special emphasis. It also has social functions, such as its use for identity negotiation, social-group membership, or to signal social solidarity (or superiority). Less common than the back and forth between Standard Arabic and dialect, at least in normal everyday situations, is the kind of dialectal code-switching done by Hamdan. However, it is used for effect in the entertainment industry. Such code-switching occurs in the U.S. entertainment as well, for example, by having a character speak with a strong hillbilly-like accent, a clear signal of unsophistication and a source of humor.

Yasmine Hamdan – Ya Nass ياسمين حمدان – يا ناس‬

U.S. Diplomat speaks Pidgin

U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria James Entwhistle

U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria James Entwhistle being interviewed

It’s not what you expect from the U.S. Diplomatic Corps, an ambassador who gives an interview in which he speaks what sometimes is described as “broken English”.  This was Ambassador to Nigeria James F. Entwistle speaking in an interview on Nigerian radio.  What he spoke (only in short segments) was pidgin English, a broadly spoken version of the language used across West Africa.  Entwhistle was interviewed on Nigeria’s Wazobia FM, the first radio station in Nigeria to broadcast in pidgin English.  When asked about Nigeria’s controversial anti-gay legislation, he responded:

“The U.S. government no say sanction go dey for Nigeria, because of same-sex palava-o.”

In other words, the U.S. is not going to impose sanctions on Nigeria for passing the  law.  When Entwhistle was asked about the U.S. position on the upcoming election in Nigeria, he asserted U.S. neutrality in these terms:

“Make I tell you say U.S. no get any candidate for mind. The only ting wey go sweet us be say make the election dey transparent, credible and concluded. Make Nigerians pick candidates wey go sweet their belle, wey go do well well for them.”

The Ambassador’s use of pidgin was much appreciated at the radio station and presumably by everyday Nigerians as well.  Even if they may not have agreed with his positions, they certainly liked to hear the ambassador of a major power speak their language.  As can be seen from the examples above, Nigerian Pidgin is quite distinct from standard English, in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. The Pidgin English School offers video lessons in the language. It is certainly to the Ambassador’s credit that he has made the effort to be able to understand Nigerian Pidgin and speak it somewhat as well.

YouTube video of interview:

I, too, am Harvard

harvard2An article over the week-end in the NY Times discussed racial “microaggressions”, an increasingly used term on U.S. college campuses to describe “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture”.  The Times cites examples: “A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.” These are clearly not examples of full-blown racism, but are indicators of a lack of awareness and sensitivity.  At a number of universities currently there are discussions of microagressions, through Facebook pages, photo projects, or blogs. There is debate in these forums as to whether the examples given are legitimate reasons to feel slighted or whether, as the Times states, they represent “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.” The term’s prominence comes in part from the popularity of a blog begun by two Columbia University studens, the Microagressions Project.

At Harvard, a photo project called, “I, too, am Harvard” explores microaggressions experienced by black students at the elite university.  Many cite references to the appearance, often centered around hair, or casual statements about it being nice to be black when applying to Harvard.  That latter comment reflects one likely origin of such comments, the perceived experience of minority students receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs.  The photo project at Harvard has since morphed into a play.

An interesting take on such slights comes from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent interview on NPR, Adichie recounts the bafflement she felt when a black fellow student at Princeton took offense at a classmate talking about watermelon.  As an African, she has had to learn the cultural dimensions of being black in the U.S.  Interestingly, she has a lot to say in the interview about hair and the importance of how Nigerian women chose their hair styles, a topic that also comes up in her wonderful novel, Americanah.

Becoming “Clark Rockefeller”

Christian Gerhartsresiter, aka Clark Rockefeller

Christian Gerhartsresiter, aka Clark Rockefeller

An interview this week on NPR’s Fresh Air brought back to light the case of “Clark Rockefeller”, the con man who was in reality Christian Gerharstreiter from Germany, not, as he claimed, a member of the Rockefeller clan.  That claim came after previous identities adopted over the years including being a British baronet, a cardiologist in Las Vegas, a Hollywood producer, and a bond broker in New York. The interview was with author Walter Kirn, who was a friend of “Rockefeller” for years.  Listening to the interview, it seems hardly credible that Kirn would accept the wild stories he was being told: that his friend was a “freelance central banker”, that he had never eaten in a restaurant, that he had attended Yale when he was 14, that he had a master key to the Rockefeller Center, that on successive week-ends he had as house guests Brittany Spears and then Angelika Merkel. It turns out that Gerhartsreiter was not only a con man, but he had brutally murdered a man in California in the 1980’s, a crime for which he was convicted last year and resentenced to prison for 27 years to life.

How was the massive deception possible?  Gerhartsreiter was skilled in reading his conversation partner and accurately gauging what stories would be believable.  His verbal skills were impressive, given the fact that he was not a native speaker of English.  The family with whom he originally stayed on coming to the U.S. as an exchange student (which he fraudulently arranged himself) when he was 18 reported that he experimented with different accents.  Eventually, he settled, according to Kirn, on an accent that sounded like Katharine Hepburn’s cousin. But, probably even more important than his language ability, were Gerhartreiter’s non-verbal skills.  His bearing, dress, and general appearance seemed to confirm his identity.  He acted out his roles with confidence and great self-assurance.  His success calls to mind the TED talk by Amy Cuddy in which she discusses the importance of body language and the possibility of adjusting your posture and appearance to convince yourself and others of the identity you want to convey.

Gerhartsreiter’s case also for me brings to mind a concept in modern linguistics:  performativity, originally conceived by J.L Austin. The idea of “performance” is that communicative competence is not, as often conceived, a matter of mastering the whole grammar system of a language, but rather of being able to strategically choose what is needed in particular contexts.  In this way, according to Suresh Canagarajah, performance “gives primacy to acts of creative and strategic communication motivated by the enigmatic purposes of complex individuals.  It draws attention to playfulness, fabrication, strategic negotiations, situationally motivated shifts, multiple identities” (from the forward to Clemente/Higgins, Performing English with a post-colonial accent:  Ethnographic narratives from Mexico). Christian Gerhartsreiter was clearly a master of performance in a number of senses.

Making MOOCs truly open

sorry-we're-open-signMassive open online courses (MOOCs) have become a worldwide phenomenon, as  interested folks from anywhere in the world can participate. Some MOOCs attract huge numbers of students, many coming from countries where access to higher education may be difficult or not available at all.  In some cases, students completing a MOOC are able to earn a certificate of completion or mastery that can be professionally useful.  Others participate purely for personal growth.  Almost all MOOCs are taught in English, although increasingly we are seeing such courses originate outside the English-speaking world. One of the recent trends are hybrid offerings, which combine the content and course structure from MOOCs with instructor-led local courses.

There have been plenty of critics of MOOCs, with some pointing to the high drop-out rate and others to the impersonal nature of how the courses taught or the lack of interactivity.  Increasingly, the consortia or companies offering MOOCs, such as Coursera, Edx, or Udacity, are working towards more peer-to-peer networking and more interactivity through self and peer assessments and more frequent learning tasks. One area that continues to lag in terms of online pedagogy is the limited amount of student-content interactivity.  Content is typically presented through videos, with minimal interactions – usually in the form of pausing the video for true-false or multiple choice questions. The content presentation is separate from the online discussions, with few options for participants to interact with the presenter, although sometimes a small sub-section of the course can actively comment or raise questions. The other limited aspect of MOOC pedagogy is the use of commercial textbooks, often an integral part of the course.  Sometimes the texts are supplied at low cost, but they tend to be static learning materials and are not normally available outside the course structure. The “open” in MOOCs doesn’t usually extend to content.

Recently, however, there have been developments in the MOOC space which offer a more open content model. One of those is the consortium of universities, mostly from the UK, FutureLearn, which features the Open University, long a leader not only in distance learning, but also in sharing course content.  Along with founder MIT and a host of other universities, the Open University is a member of the OpenCourseware Consortium, which makes content available in standard exchange formats such as the IMS Common Cartridge.  Many developments in open content sharing are occurring outside the U.S. Recently, for example, an online university has been created, based in New Zealand, OERu, that features open educational resources (OER).  One of the big advantages of using open content is the ability to customize course content, assembling OERs from different sources into a course, or starting with a piece of open courseware, then editing it as needed. For this to be possible, content needs to be made available in standard formats.  Today that usually means using HTML5 and could include as well the packaging format for e-book readers, EPUB 3. I recently published a piece in Language Learning & Technology which discusses how that can do done with examples for language learning.

Philly sound: Dying out?


Philly cheesesteak: More popular than the accent?

Interesting article in the NY Times about what the author describes as “the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America,” namely the “Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent [which] may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts”.  What has been unique about the Philly sound was that it represented a mash-up of Northern and Southern accents: “Nowhere but in the Delaware Valley can you hear those rounded vowels — soda is sewda, house is hay-ouse — a clear influence from Baltimore and points south.”

Some examples of Philly talk from the article:

Jeet? D’jou wanna get a sawff pressle?  [Did you eat? Do you want to get a soft pretzel?]
Dry da wooder awf wit a tail.   [Dry the water off with a towel.]
’Lannic City’s too torsty anymore.  [
Atlantic City is too touristy these days.]

To hear the accent, check out the series of YouTube videos by Sean Monahan. Unfortunately, according to a recent study by linguists at the University of Pennsylvania, the accent is changing and moving towards greater similarity to other Northern accents.

Speaking of regional accents, a survey was conducted by cupid.com to determine the “sexist” North American accent.  The winner?  Southern.  The least sexy? “Mid-Atlantic” – does that mean Philly? On the other hand, the Philly Cheesesteak continues to find lots of admirers.

Facts: irrelevant!

just-the-factsHow hard is it to get people to change their beliefs? Really hard, even if facts are provided that refute those beliefs.  And even if those facts are accepted as true!  A recent study in Scientific American points to this conclusion. The study, by Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College, dealt with the now-debunked idea that a vaccine for childhood diseases like measles causes autism.  The researchers were able to bring the parents who were vaccine-skeptics to the point that they believed the scientific research which showed no link existed.  However, they found surprisingly that after accepting the scientific evidence as fact, the parents indicated that they were even less likely to have their children vaccinated.   According to Nyham, “The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases may be counterproductive.” The explanation for this behavior is not completely clear, but Nyham speculates, based on previous studies, that the vaccine doubters likely recalled other objections or concerns: “We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines.”  The takeaway:  changing people’s minds takes more than presenting facts, and may call for messages with a variety of arguments to counter misinformation and myths.

The recent debate about evolution between Bill Nye (the “science guy”) and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum may send an even more disturbing message.  It was widely acknowledged (including by Christian Today) that Bill Nye, basing his arguments on radiometric dating, the fossil record, and common sense, clearly won the debate.  Of course, whether the debate convinced evolution doubters to accept scientific evidence is uncertain.  What seems, however, to be an outcome of the debate is that it has led to a flood of contributions to a proposed theme park addition to Kentucky’s Creation Museum.  In fact, a number of scientists were leery of having such a debate, as it gives an aura of believability to creationism.  It’s a sad thought that just talking about such issues can be problematic and can reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs.


Not in Putin’s plans: Crimean Tatars


Crimean Tatars in traditional dress

Part of the tense, complicated crisis currently in Crimea is the role of an ethnic group indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula, the Crimean Tatars.  Their history has made them side much more with Ukraine than with Russia in the current stand-off.  They were forcibly removed by Stalin from Crimea, which they consider their ancestral homeland, and in the waning days of the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, gradually began returning to Crimea.  Today they represent some 12% of the population of Crimea. Having suffered persecution under both Czarist and communist Russia, the Crimean Tatars are understandably nervous about Crimea coming back under Russian control. In fact, until the recent arrival of Russian military units in Crimea, the Tatars were among the few groups outside Western Ukraine actively proclaiming their allegiance to the new Ukrainian government. According to a recent article in the New Republic, the Crimean Tatars are not likely to go along with an increasing Russification of the peninsula and may  cause trouble for Putin’s possible plans to annex Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars differ from both Russians and Ukrainians in religion (Muslim) and language (Crimean Tatar).  Their language belongs to the Turkic language family and is one of the treasured cultural traditions the Tatars maintained in exile.  Today, however, living alongside other Crimeans speaking Russian and Ukrainian, there are fears that the language is endangered.  Should the language die out, so would a crucial element of the group’s cultural identity and cohesion.  In an interesting reflection of socio-political realities, the written language has gone through myriad transformations, from using Arabic script, to Turkic, to Cyrillian, to a Latin-based alphabet.